Victoria Whale Watching Report: Hat Trick! Gray Whale, Humpback Whale & Killer Whales
July 20, 2019
Some would call today a triple header and some would call it a hat trick! No matter the way you spin it, this morning was incredible.
We started off our trip by visiting a lone Gray whale who was headed west. These whales are quite large, with the females being larger than the males. To put this into scale, five male African Elephants roughly equate the size of a 35 tonne Gray Whale. We didn’t spend much time with this whale as Gray Whales, while very exciting to see, don’t usually show much more than their dorsal fin. Captain Jeremy had a plan!
We moved a little distance away and we came across a Humpback Whale! These animals are comparable in size to the Gray Whale but behave a little differently. These whales usually come up to the surface for 3 or 4 shallow breaths and then take one big breath and go for a longer dive. These long dives are usually when the Humpback Whales show us the backside of their fluke, allowing us to identify them. This particular Humpback that we were hanging out with is known quite well to the Victoria area as MMZ0038, Orca Spirit crew calls this whale Pong, even though it doesn’t have a recognized cute human name yet!
Next up was Race Rocks Ecological Reserve! This series of islands are the southernmost part of British Columbia and home to a variety of sea life, including 4 species of Pinnipeds. On this trip, we got to see Steller Sea Lions, Californian Sea Lions, Harbour Seals as well as, Northern Elephant Seals. Northern Elephant Seal males can weigh up to 6,000 pounds but because they are a true seal they can’t walk on land as a sea lion does! These guys rely on a worm-like movement called galumphing to get them where they need to go. At Race Rocks, we also had a brief encounter with a napping Ollie the Sea Otter and a pair of Bald Eagles.
As we left Race Rocks we came on scene with a family of 8 Biggs Killer Whales, completing our hat trick! These are our mammal-eating killer whales and this particular family is well known to the Victoria area. The family is known as the T046B’s; they have even been in the news quite a lot in recent months. T046B1B was born all grey causing a lot of ruckus about what caused this whale! There has been speculation that this whale is leucistic, albino, has a form of killer whale acne, or even suffers from a disease called Chediak Higashi. We spent a decent amount of time watching this family mill for food, but because they were travelling quite fast we couldn’t stay with them for very long.
On the way back to the harbour we had one last encounter with a whale! This whale is known as Scratchy and is a very local Humpback Whale. Scratchy for the last few weeks has been hanging around William Head.
After watching Scratchy fluke a few times we journeyed back to the Coast Hotel. It was an incredible trip with great weather, great animals and great people.
This calm and sunny afternoon was perfect for a whale watch! We began our trip by heading south-southeast into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The sky was crystal clear so we could see the beautiful Olympic Mountain Range and Hurricane Ridge ahead of us.
Just across the US-Canada border, we came across a group of Bigg’s/Transient killer whales! These Bigg’s are the mammal-eating ecotype of killer whale. They hunt for seals, sea lions, porpoises, other dolphins and even whales! They are very cooperative when they hunt and they always share their kill will all members of the group.
A group of Bigg’s killer whales usually consists of a mother and her offspring and is usually quite small to allow for stealth! They need to be quiet so they can sneak up on their prey which are relatively smart and have great hearing.
The family we saw today is known as the T046B’s. The T046B’s are actually quite a large group – 8 members all together with three generations.
T046B is the grandmother of T046B1B, the gray calf! His name is “Tl’uk” which means “moon” in Coast Salish language – very fitting! He is very famous because of his rare condition called leucism – a genetic condition that affects many types of pigment, but not in the eyes (unlike albinism). This was a surreal encounter today. With our engines off, the T046B’s approached our boat then gracefully swam by. The water was so calm we could see them beneath the surface!
We left these orcas and went to look for humpback whales and came across Scratchy! Scratchy is easily identifiable by the “rake marks” on its fluke left by Bigg’s killer whales. Humpback calves sometimes are preyed upon by the Bigg’s, and the survivors are left with the scars to prove it! Now a big, healthy whale, Scratchy could be up to 50 feet long and 35-40 tonnes! Humpbacks are found in these waters from May to November and during this time they eat constantly, and consume between 1 and 3 tonnes of krill or small schooling fish per day! For the rest of the year, they don’t eat anything! This is because there is no food for then in their breeding grounds of Hawaii, Mexico and Costa Rica.
It was a wonderful tour and time out on the water!
6:30 PM TOUR
We left the harbour aboard the Pacific Explorer with reports of orca well to the east of us. It was an amazing evening with calm seas and clear skies. Along the way, we saw lots of harbour porpoise foraging.
After a long journey, we arrived near the entrance to Admiralty Inlet. The group of eight orcas known as the T46Bs had been making their way slowly east throughout the day. You could not pick a more beautiful location to watch the orcas as they were framed by the beautiful backdrop of Mount Baker to the northeast and Mount Rainier to the south.
Guests and crew alike were thrilled by the energetic antics of Tl’uk (T46B1B), the leucistic orca calf and watched as the orcas harassed some seabirds. Young Bigg’s killer whales often practice their hunting skills on common murres or rhinoceros auklets.
After another great encounter, we headed back to the harbour towards a magnificent setting sun. It was another magnificent day on the Salish Sea.
7:30 PM TOUR
It was a gorgeous night on the Juan de Fuca Strait with water as calm as glass and a golden sunset forming behind the hills. We made our way west of the city to search for whales, something easy to do on such flat waters. Before we got very far along our journey, we spotted the misty blow of a humpback whale! As we got a bit closer, we knew who this baleen whale was- Scratchy! Scratchy has been a regular humpy in our area over the past few days. Scratchy has a unique grey back, rather than being black, and old battle scars on her tail fluke that look like white scratches.
With the water so calm and the sunset light so golden, watching Scratchy surface looked surreal. Here we were, spending time with and listen to the sounds of a species that was pushed to the brink of extinction during the whaling era. We are so very fortunate to have nutrient-rich waters surrounding the straits of Victoria as they attract a plethora of marine wildlife on a daily basis.
We wanted to take the opportunity the show our guests other sea creatures that inhabit our area, so we headed over to Race Rocks Lighthouse, a black-and-white tower overlooking the Southern-most tip of Vancouver Island. Among the pinnipeds that live at Race Rocks, we were happy to see the very first California Sea Lion back from the mating season on the stairs in front of the lighthouse. We also saw the larger Steller Sea Lions relaxing on Helicopter Rock and small Harbour Seals on many of the islets. As we headed into port, we soaked up the beauty of the west coast on a wonderful summer evening.